Welcome To Tobacco Road

Ram note: Occasionally I read an article on a subject that I feel viewers will enjoy also. Not knowing whether viewers have access to the original article, I request permission from the author to post it on the web site. This is one of those instances. I have secured permission from Dave George of the Palm Beach Post to post his article entitled "Welcome To Tobacco Road." It is the best piece I have ever read on the subject, and I have told Mr. George so. Hope you enjoy it.
Welcome To Tobacco Road by Dave George

Old men playing checkers on the courthouse square are in short supply these days, but there remains a strong scent of yesterday on Tobacco Road. College basketball is the strongest bond between what was and what always will be around here, the tie that knots absolutely everybody together.

We're not just talking about a migratory flock of college students with faces painted in the shades of four neighboring campuses, either.

North Carolina, basketball's stateliest state, is farmers and kindergarten teachers, mechanics and maids, truckers and church pianists, grandmothers in flowered aprons and research teams in white lab coats. It's people who shouldn't be staying up late all winter to listen for a final score, but they do. Atlantic Coast Conference hoops is their heritage, and it blends all those lifestyles into one.

It's fishing holes and pick and rolls. Frosty full moons and half court heat. Stock car growls and intentional fouls. The slow, honeyed pace of Southern conversation and the cruel siren song of a double-overtime period measured out in mere tenths of a second.

The Miami Hurricanes, who join Virginia Tech as ACC expansion entrants for 2004-2005, must begin in the coming months to find a place in this entirely natural order. Florida State, an ACC member since 1992, has yet to get very comfortable with the company of teams like Duke and North Carolina, two powerhouse programs whose gyms are planted within 11 miles of each other, or with North Carolina State and Wake Forest, two more monster rivals that also may be found along the same remarkable 100 mile stretch of Interstate 40. The Seminoles hold their own in Tallahassee against these teams and others with tough minded Leonard Hamilton as their coach, but on the road, FSU has lost 24 consecutive games to ACC opponents.

Can it be worse for the Hurricanes, who last year finished near the bottom of the Big East and operate now under the direction of rookie coach Fred Haith? Spend a few days up here, where football season is far too early for serious fans to peak, and it seems it could be so.

There were 6400 fully involved fans last Tuesday night at an exhibition game in Raleigh between N.C. State and some small school hors d'oeuvre named St. Augustine. Miami averaged a disappointing 2,545 for home games that counted, but apparently not for much.

Mike Krzyzewski had a chance to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, yet decided to stay at Duke, where as "Coach K" he needs only one letter to spell out his destiny. Haith, on the other hand, could sell newspapers on the median of U.S. 1 in Coral Gables and few would make the connection that his is the face featured on the local sports pages.

ACC teams dominate AP poll.

Check the Associated Press pre-season rankings. There are three ACC teams in the top four, with Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and North Carolina drafting close behind No. 1 Kansas. Duke, Maryland and NC. State are also in the top 20 and pushing at all times to upgrade. Look at the 2003 Final Four, which was 50% ACC, with Georgia Tech and Duke represented. The Yellow Jackets finished 9-7 in league play during the regular season but made it all the way to the NCAA title game before knuckling under to Connecticut. Consider it evidence that the middle of the ACC pack is as good a place to find a national championship contender as any.

On a two-lane highway north of Chapel Hill, in a faded cinderblock restaurant called Allen and Son Barbecue might be as good a place as any to bump into the winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 history, too.

Dean Smith, retired after 36 seasons, 2 national titles and 11 Final Fours appearances, could find this place with his eyes closed. Just drive Route 86 north of town past the hand painted sign offering goats for sale, and pull into the gravel lot at Mt. Sinai Road. If you get to Lambert's General Store where fresh local eggs sit stacked up like apples in a basket by the register, you've gone too far.

" Dean Smith sneaks in here every now and then to get a good meal," said Keith Allen, who's been operating on this remote spot for 32 years and still shows up at 3 a.m. daily to start the meat on those famous pork ribs towards their fall-off-the-bone tenderness. "He's just a customer here. He used to bring his whole staff in here when he was coaching the Tar Heels."

Any Tuesday or Thursday or Saturday thro winter, the most common game days in the ACC, the capacity load of 100 customers will fill the tables at Allen's, most of them driving in from two nearby interstates.

Sure, there's old fashioned Carolina barbecue to be enjoyed, plus tall milk glasses filled with sweet ice tea, and a selection of dessert specials listed on the white erase board underneath old favorites like hot peach cobbler topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.

What really makes the meal at a place like this, however, is the basketball. It's piped into the simple dining room through the wall speakers, radio play by play only. And if the majority of those listening prefer to hear Duke or Wake Forest or N.C. State rather than North Carolina, Allen will respectfully consider the request.

" I'm a State man, myself," he said." Went to night school there to finish up my degree. We provide a service for those on the way to the game and on the way home, including a lot of out-of-staters. People come in here wearing all their different colors, but everybody gets along."

Maybe that's because Allen and Son doesn't serve alcohol. For that, and for huge banks of televisions that are consistently screamed at by throngs of standing people, step into any sports bar on the main streets near campus, like Franklin St. in Chapel Hill or Western Avenue near the N.C. State campus in Raleigh. No one is neutral there, and no one would dream of showing up without the appropriate uniform of jackets and hats. Why, in Chapel Hill, even the emergency vehicles are painted Carolina blue, perhaps for fear that fire-engine red looks a little too much like the Wolfpack colors.

Outfitting all this passion is no small task, which is why the Sports Fan-Attic sports apparel chain, a Tampa based operation, planned its first major expansion of stores into North Carolina. At a mall in Winston-Salem, just a few miles from the Wake Forest campus, the company stocks the store with far more than Demon Deacon gear. North Carolina products sell the best, even here, with N.C. State and Duke right behind.

" I haven't lived here very long," said Richard High, district manager for Sports Fan-Attic's many Tobacco Road stores. I'm from Texas, so I'm a football guy. They have swayed me a little bit, though.
Everybody gets so excited about college basketball up here, especially during March Madness, because all the teams are so darn good."

" They come into the stores looking for all the teams, but sometimes it does get a little crazy. I had one parent who was for North Carolina and for some reason had to buy a Duke shirt for her daughter or something. She stopped me at the register and wouldn't allow me to put the two shirts in the same bag. She didn't want them touching each other. I thought she was joking but she was dead serious."

His airness still a big name around here.

For some reason, some customers of Michael Jordan Nissan will insist on the name of the dealership removed from their new car before they drive it off the lot. No Michael Jordan license plates allowed. No Michael Jordan chrome stickers affixed to the vehicles of some Duke fans. Bad enough that the former Tar Heel star has moved his business into Durham, home of the Blue Devils, and has a Lincoln-Mercury dealership there too.

"You'd be surprised how many people drive in here from the interstate just to see if he has an office here, or if he's on the lot," said Michael Crane, a salesman who in three years at Jordan's Nissan store never has seen His Airness. "We had a big family here from Mexico one day, taking pictures of the basketballs and jerseys and trophies we have on display in the showroom. I gave them one of our promotional license plates to take home with Michael's name on it. The way they reacted, you would have thought it was made of gold."

Sometimes, late at night, teams of salesmen and service staff from Jordan's two dealerships move the cars out of the carpeted showroom and play a full court game on the two official basketball standards that hang from the roof. Keeping score is no problem. There's a fully functioning scoreboard on the wall, and a set of aluminum bleachers by the front entrance.

One of the greatest treats for outsiders on Tobacco Road is that nobody is an outsider. All who love college hoops are welcome here, even Yankees. As a matter of fact, when you're talking about players, especially Yankees.

Only four of the ACC athletes who have been voted National Player of the Year are from North Carolina. That's as many as have dropped in from New York, including Duke greats Christian Laettner and Elton Brand. Julius Hodge of North Carolina State, last year's ACC Player of the Year, is from Harlem. That continues a Big Apple connection that began in the 1950s when Lennie Rosenbluth came down from New York City to lead an undefeated national championship North Carolina team.

This provides comfort for those in the colony of transplanted Northeasterners on Tobacco Road, which is the time worn but well accepted nickname for a region of the country where tobacco barns once outnumbered strip malls and tobacco auctioneers were the most respected public speakers in town. Winston-Salem didn't get that name for nothing, after all.

When Dick DeAngelis came to N.C. State from Pennsylvania to play football in 1954, there was only one Italian restaurant in the state capital of Raleigh. He loved North Carolina enough to stay, but not if country diners were his source of sustenance. Thus was born Amedeo's, a pizza and pasta place within site of the Wolfpack's campus entrance.

DeAngelis and his family have gathered more photographs of N.C. State athletes for their restaurant's walls and booths and entryways than can be found anywhere else on earth. Jim Valvano, coach of the 1983 national championship Wolfpack, had his own booth there, large enough to accommodate a growing entourage.

"Valvano and I were close," said DeAngelis, 68. "He acted as if he owned the place. If I only had a tape recorder for that booth."

There's a shot of Frank Sinatra and Valvano with DeAngelis at the restaurant's entrance. There need be no further proof of ACC basketball's peculiar pull when ol' Blue Eyes finds his way to Raleigh.

Miami has no such sparkle, at least not in basketball. Probably being in the ACC will help Haith recruit better players. Certainly playing in places like Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, an arena so compact it looks like the chemistry building from the outside, will make the Hurricanes tougher.

How long, however, will it take for Miami to be competitive in this league?

Doesn't matter, really. The ACC isn't going anywhere, and there's nowhere better to be.

Hoop harvest time has come once more to Tobacco Road. It's a blessing simply to behold.

Ram note 2:

Posting this article would probably be a simple matter if I had sophisticated equipment and the proper training to go with it. That was not the case here and I mention it simply to explain that there may be a comma or two that don't match with the original article that appeared in the Palm Beach Post. I hand copied the article from the internet and then typed it on my prehistoric keyboard. It took several hours to complete this task and I hope not too much was lost in transcription.